Saturday, June 19, 2010

Melbourne - Day 1

I woke up after a cold night. I was surprised at how cold Melbourne winters are compared to Auckland winters. I made a mental note to wear more layers the next night before going to sleep, as I did not get a very good rest the night before. As Damien left for work, I got dressed and prepared by day pack for a day wandering around Melbourne centre. I also sent a text to Jake, whom I hosted for a few nights in Auckland, and Kirin, one of the two CouchSurfing ambassadors for Auckland. Both of them happened to be in Melbourne during my visit. Kirin was busy at work, and told us he would meet up for dinner, but Jake didn't have any plans, so we decided we'll meet in the city in about an hour's time.

As I've heard some things about Footscray market, and seeing that I was in the area, I decided to pop in there to grab a bite to eat before heading into the city. After a 20 minute walk along relatively quite streets, I emerged on a series of more bustling streets, with a mix of Vietnamese and African stores and people wandering around. I was quite happy I found this place - or so I thought, as I had only some very crude maps of the area. I found a nice plaza filled with colourful characters wandering around, and due to reading some signs strangely, I was somehow convinced that this plaza was Footscray Market. It was only on the night of the day before I left that I discovered that I was standing right beside the building where Footscray Market was located in - oh well, something to save for next time. There was also a busy street where trams ran. The view down this street towards the skyscrapers of Melbourne centre reminded me very much of Toronto, where such views from similarly colourful neighbourhoods against a backdrop of skyscrapers are common. As I was walking around, I got a text from Jake saying that he was going to get free internet from the State Library of Victoria, and after referencing the Lonley Planet I took out from the library, I was on my way to Footscray Station.

The area around the station looked much better during the day than at night. It was bustling, and many people were walking around. I caught a train to Flinders Street Station, and soon, I arrived at Melbourne Central, the station by the library. It was now that I started seriously doubting my travel abilities again, as I just realised that instead of purchasing a 5 x day pass ticket, I had purchased a 10 x 2 hour trip ticket for the same price. Seeing that I was only in Melbourne for a total of less than five days, a 5 x day pass would have covered my travel period nearly perfectly. This failure in reasoning was completely not like me, and I really beat myself up over this poorly-planned purchase.

In any case, I arrived at Melbourne Central, and was immediately impressed as I emerged up out of the station into a shopping centre, right under a giant glass dome enclosing a historic lead shot manufacturing tower. After a photo and grabbing a quick look at the exchange offices, when I realised I was ripped off at the airport, I emerged out onto the busy streets of central Melbourne, right across from the library. Crossing the street, I approached a hooded man reading a book under the big statue on the steps in front, and as planned, it was Jake! I love it when plans just work out while travelling! After some warm hellos, we headed off to explore Melbourne together.

The first stop was a café that Jake was directed to earlier, where one could order a bowl of coffee. A bowl! Well, seeing that I was quite exhausted already, and had a long day ahead of me, I figure it would be a good idea. I relaxed with a giant bowl of mocha. It was here, when Jake didn't buy anything, that I learned the state of his financial condition. Jake, after a three month journey (his first backpacking trip), was to return to the US the day after I fly back to Auckland. Being still in school, this means that he has only about $10 a day to spend for the next five days, and he still wants to buy souvenirs and gifts to take home. Looks like we won't be doing anything too extravagant in the next few days!

After coffee, we spent a while walking around the Melbourne CBD. This was one of the activities I had been looking forward to doing in Melbourne. I've heard that one of the unique features of Melbourne are the small alleyways of the CBD, which one can spend hours wandering around in. I wan't let down. Just off of the busy, bustling main streets are a network of tiny alleyways filled with stores, cafés, restaurants and bars. It was very cosy wandering around here, as they are filled with people and covered with awnings, often stretching nearly all the way across the narrow canyons made by the buildings. Much of the walls here were also covered with graffiti - not the bad kind, but very professional and artistic ones. As it turn out, graffiti isn't only tolerated, but celebrated here. We even walked past a small alleyway with ladders set up and a group of artists working under the watchful eye of a handful of observers and photographers.

After a while of wandering, we headed over to Federation Square, the cultural centrepiece of Melbourne, completed in 2002. Federation Square, located right in the centre of Melbourne along the shores of Yarra River, is an entire city block filled with indoor and outdoor public spaces, a series of (mostly free) cultural institutions and a visitor's centre, all built in an abstract futuristic post-modern style. It was definitely one of my favourite places in Melbourne. I can't express enough how much I respect a city that provides such high quality cultural institutions and public spaces to its citizens for free.

We visited an exhibition organised by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, known by its acronym, ACMI. There, I had a crash course in the history of Australian cinema, watched a few very entertaining videos (old and new artistic shorts), and a variety of visually stimulating displays. There was even a small booth that allowed you to make your own (low-granularity) bullet time video, which you can e-mail to yourself! We wanted to explore the video library of ACMI as well, but they were quite busy, and all of the booths were taken. At this time, I got a text from Damien, who had some time off between shifts, and we decided to meet at Federation Square.

As Damien showed, up, he was very keen to hit show us some bars, so we followed him back into the CBD, where he brought us to a very cool rooftop bar. Getting into small elevator covered in pasted posters and scribbles, we took it to the sixth floor, where there were a few closed shops of some sort. Taking an external flight of stairs another floor or two up, we arrived at a rooftop bar, which during the summers, also serves as an outdoor cinema! I can imagine myself quite happy here, with some friends, having a few drinks, and watching some art house movies at night, to the backdrop of the glowing skyscrapers of downtown Melbourne. I also enjoyed the beer I had here very much, a local micro brew - which reminded me of how much I missed the world-renown micro brews of Northern California that I enjoyed frequently when I lived in San Francisco. Here, we weathered quite a downpour under some parasols, and found the locals to be quite friendly and chatty. After the the beer, we left the cold of the outdoors and popped a few floors down to a large and surprisingly busy bar, which had a wonderful warm, bohemian vibe to it. Damien soon left, happily buzzed, to go to work - as he was biking to work in a commercial kitchen, I seriously hoped that he would be careful after the drinks! Of course, not wanting to leave Jake out of the fun, I had been buying his drinks, as he has effectively no money left to spend.

After the bar, Jake and I decided to head over to The National Gallery of Victoria, a large museum, free to the public, just across the Yarra. Even though we realised that they would most likely be closed when we got there, we decided it would be a nice walk anyway. After some great dusk views of the city around the Yarra, we arrived at the waterfall wall of the National Gallery to find that it was, indeed, closed. Well, no matter. At this time, Jake and another CouchSurfer made contact, and it was determined that we would meet in front of the Crown Casino and Entertainment Complex across the street from the Convention Centre.

Walking along the Yarra, we were treated to some great night views of the city and views of Eureka Tower, completed in 2006, which held the title of world's tallest residential building for a brief moment. I quite like the symbolism in the architecture, the blue and white cladding representing the flag of the Eureka Stockade, the gold top representing the gold rush, and a striking stripe of red running down from the top to represent the blood that was shed in one of the most important events in the state of Victoria's history. We arrived just in time for the nightly fire show, with large balls of fire being shot up into the sky from a few pillars along the Yarra in front of the Crown Complex. Everyone just stopped for a few minutes, and as soon as the show as over, everyone just continued on their way. It was quite cold and rainy now, and after a bit of waiting on a bustling street filled with people streaming out of the convention centre, we were glad to finally see the other Couchsurfer.

From here, we walked up a few blocks to meet up with Kirin. Unfortunately, Jake had to head off to a house party, so he left and couldn't join us for dinner. Kirin and I walked to the CBD area, where I was quite impressed with the number of restaurant choices offering reasonably-priced meals. As it turns out, Melbourne is one of the most multicultural cities in Australia, with over 40% of the population reporting to be born overseas, according to the most recent census in 2009. This is nearly comparable to the astounding 50% that Toronto reported. Actually, I found it quite interesting, I've discovered that Canada tells their citizens that it is the most multicultural country in the world, while Australia makes the same claim to their citizens! And no one seems to have questioned it or even realises that both nations claim to be the most multicultural country in the world. It makes me wonder how many more countries claim this, and what the actual statistics are.

After dinner and a drink at Young and Jackson, a bar made famous by controversially displaying Chloé, a painting of a nude female in the Victorian age, Kirin and I parted ways. Seeing that it was quite late, I decided not to join Jake at the house party, so I started back to turn in for the night, as I was quite exhausted for the day. I enjoyed some great night views around Flinders Street station. Perhaps seeing me take photos, I was hit upon my a kind of creepy Burmese gay guy on the ride back. I am really not sure what it is about me that seems to just attract these kinds of situations. In any case, when I made it back to Damien's, I spent some time chatting and trying to find a leak in a large air bed in the lounge. Damien had bumped into two French Couchsurfers sleeping in a van they bought and are travelling around it, and thought it would be nice to offer them a warmer place to sleep in for the next few days. Turning in for the night, I made sure to wear nearly everything I had to fend off the cold at night.

Oh yeah, and one other thing I learned - apparently my ticket purchased worked out after all. Any tickets used in the evening get extended to a day pass, and if one uses their pass for the second time in a day, it also gets automatically extended to a day pass - what a generous and convenient system! I guess I'm just that good when it come to travelling - even my mistakes are good! (Just kidding!)

Melbourne - Prologue

June 4th, 2010. Friday. After a stressful week of work, the time for my next long-weekend trip was finally here. In all honesty, due to the recent amount of stress, I haven't even really thought about the trip, and wasn't really looking forward to it - a first for any trips I have taken. I was also thinking of the fun I will be missing out on, as Bach Weekend 2.1 was scheduled for this week - a bunch of my friends are heading out to a bach. In fact, someone had to be called to be my replacement when we realised that I would be gone for that weekend.

Since my flight was scheduled for just after 9pm, I had time to first head home, do a final check, and then head to the bus station at the ferry terminal building to catch the 6pm bus to the airport. With a new Kathmandu EOS SL 26 litre pack purchased just this week, everything went smoothly. I was happy that I finally got around to getting a small, simple, light (half a kilo!) pack for use on the long weekend trips. Sitting on the bus and looking out the window at a busy ferry terminal after dark, I finally had a chance to relax after an extremely stressful week. The ride there was not very eventful, although since it was taking place during rush hour, I saw how busy the Auckland bus stations can get, especially around schools.

I arrived at the airport, and feeling strangely familiar with the standard check-in procedure, went up to the Qantas desk to check in. "Do you have a valid visa for Australia?" asked the clerk. "I'm on a Canadian passport - I don't need a visa." I replied. All of a sudden, I remembered - for last year's trip to Sydney, I had applied for a visa online a few days before the trip (which unfortunately, only expired very recently)! The fact that I needed a visa was immediately confirmed by the check-in clerk! Uh oh, this could be bad. Fortunately, after many "interesting" situations encountered on previous trips, I stayed calm and composed, and asked is there was an Internet kiosk close by. As it turns out, the Qantas ticketing office could process my visa immediately for $30, only $5 more than what it would have cost online. I was just happy to get my visa approved and sent back to the check-in counter! I was surprised that this was the second time in a row something had gone nearly horribly wrong right at the start of the trip - but luckily, a solution would be found immediately. I hoped that this wasn't a sign that I was losing my travel skill that I had built up over the previous trips!

After the visa hiccup, I was quickly checked-in successfully, and I was off to the upstairs lounge with my small, neat pack - I was so happy that I was so comfortable carrying this pack around - definitely a good purchase! Since I still had quite a bit of time, and knowing that the Auckland airport is rather quick, I relaxed outside with a bowl of ramen from a Japanese restaurant in the terminal. This put me in a better mood after the stressful week. One of my favourite things on a trip is waiting at an airport with food. Especially on international transfers during random hours of the night, it feels like you are in a fortress of activity, protected from the night, with nothing else to do other than eat, drink, browse the stores, and people watch. As time came, I passed through security quickly, and soon after, I was on my way to Melbourne. I watched Alice in Wonderland and enjoyed an unexpected meal with drinks on the flight.

Arriving in Melbourne was pretty straightforward. A few questions and I was through. I had thought that perhaps I would receive extra attention for only having a 26 litre pack with me on an international flight, but they didn't seem to mind that much. Walking out of customs, I was greeted by a giant red rug with "Welcome to Melbourne" written on it in giant yellow letters in both English and Chinese. After exchanging some money (in which the changers told me that transaction fees were charged everywhere, which convinced me to change all of my money - a mistake on my part), I asked the info desk where to find a SIM card. I needed a phone, as I was to Couchsurf at Damien's place tonight, and needed to contact him. Unfortunately, all the stores were closed, so I decided to just hop on a bus and sort things out when I get to downtown.

Arriving at Southern Cross station, I emerged beside a giant Hungry Jack's. Luckily, I found a 7/11, who should carry SIM cards, according to the people on the bus. I bought a Vodafone card and a a recharge voucher and proceeded to activate it. As it turns out, the activation process is all automatic. When they asked for my passport number, I made a mistake while saying it, and requesting to repeat it, the voice told me "... thank you, we now have your passport number. Now, let's get your..." Great, what a wonderful system. In any case, the card promised to be activated within a few minutes, but after a few minutes, when I tried to dial a number, Vodafone told me that the process was taking longer than expected and that it could take up to six hours for activation to be completed! Just what I needed! Well, I decided that in the meantime, I will head over to my CouchSurfer's place and hope my phone gets activated before I arrive.

Since it was late at night, many of the trains were no longer running. I asked one person how to get to Footscray, and he said that there are probably no longer any trains. I asked another, and his first response was "you don't want to go there at night!" Well, that makes me feel better... after reading that Footscray is the worst neighbourhood in Melbourne earlier that day, and not having any idea how I am going to contact my Couchsurfing host! In any case, he did suggest a train to get to Footscray station, but he reckons that trains were no longer running to Middle Footscray, which is where I actually needed to get to. My plan was just to get a cab at Footscray, and that may even save me from having to walk through this dodgy area at night.

Arriving at Footscray, I was disappointed. The area was deserted. Not seeing a pay phone, I asked someone, and he didn't know where to find one. Seeing that the station was emptying out, I asked one of the last people to exit the station. He didn't know where to find a phone either, so I just offered to pay him to use his phone, but he was kind enough to just lend it to me. I was so relieved to get through to my host and told him where I was. Just then, I glanced up at the board, and noticed a train to Sydenham, the train that goes through Middle Footscray. Even luckier, it turns out that my host was on the train that I was going to take - arriving at Footscray in eight minutes! After arranging to meet him either in the second last car or the station, I happily went to the platform to wait for the train.

All went according to plan, and stepping on to the train, I was greeted by Damien, my host, who was happily drunk and on his way back from a bi-weekly Couchsurfing meeting in the city. From the station, we walked to his house. We had to pass through some extremely dodgy-looking areas, a dark alleyway of what looked like abandoned warehouses (they turned out to be garages) to a street with small-looking houses packed close together. As it turns out, in Melbourne, the houses in the city all have very small fronts, are packed close together, but extend very deep into their lots.

After settling in and some quick chatting, I was ready to go to bed on an inflatable mattress in Damien's room. I was just happy to see my bed after safely arriving at my host's place, especially after going through such difficulty contacting my host, and not knowing if I could get in contact with him or not. Just before heading to bed, I received a text from Vodafone. My activation was complete. Thanks Vodafone, your timing couldn't have been better!